Top 10 Newport Albums

An intro to the essential live documents that helped put Rhode Island on the jazz map

This weekend (Aug. 3-5), 30,000 or so music enthusiasts will converge on a spit of land overlooking Narragansett Bay in Newport, R.I., for the annual Newport Jazz Festival. Since 1954, the festival has been a New England summer tradition (except for the nine years from 1972 to 1981, during which it emigrated from Newport to New York). Countless great moments in jazz history have taken place on its stages, and many of those moments were recorded and later sold to the public on long-playing albums, a move that would elevate the name “Newport” and cement its status as a top jazz brand.

It’s interesting to note how many superb live-at-Newport albums appeared during the festival’s initial 18-year run—and how few, superb or otherwise, have appeared in the decades since its return to Rhode Island (with occasional exceptions like Christian Scott’s 2008 Live at Newport, Dave Douglas’ 2011 United Front: Brass Ecstasy at Newport, and Joe Lovano’s Classic! Live at Newport, recorded in 2005 but not released until 2016). Did the great moments stop happening? Hardly. By the 1980s, Newport was so well-established that it no longer needed the kind of publicity those classic albums had provided. It’s also possible that the festival’s legendary impresario, George Wein, had an attitude shift. One suspects he asked himself at some point why he should let record companies continue their lucrative use of the Newport brand without giving the owners of that brand a substantial cut—a natural question for a good businessman to ask.

No matter what factors caused this change, we can at least be thankful for the abundance of amazing Newport albums made between 1954 and 1971. And so, in honor of Newport 2018, this week’s JazzTimes 10 runs down some absolute highlights of that golden era.

Dave Brubeck/Jay & Kai, Dave Brubeck and Jay & Kai at Newport (Columbia, 1956)

Dave Brubeck and Jay & Kai at Newport

Understandably overshadowed by the epochal Ellington performance of the same year, this split set is nonetheless a treat from start to finish. Brubeck and Paul Desmond, three years away from “Take Five” but already operating on a high improvisational level, work brainy magic with their Bach-nouveau counterpoint on “Two-Part Contention.” On the other (vinyl) side, master trombonists J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding—in what was originally intended to be their last performance together as Jay & Kai—smartly slide their way through the latter’s “True Blue Tromboniums.”

Listen to, buy or download Dave Brubeck and Jay & Kai at Newport on Amazon!

Duke Ellington, Ellington at Newport (Columbia, 1956)

Ellington at Newport

This is the album that, arguably more than any other, made “Newport” synonymous with “jazz.” Twenty-seven riotous Paul Gonsalves choruses on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” can do things like that. But there’s a lot more to Ellington at Newport than that justly celebrated tune, although until the album was given a double-disc reissue in the ’90s, most of its remainder wasn’t actually from Newport at all—the Ellington orchestra re-recorded its festival program two days later at Columbia’s studios because of audio quality concerns.

Listen to, buy or download Ellington at Newport on Amazon!

Dizzy Gillespie, At Newport (Verve, 1957)

Dizzy Gillespie at Newport

The success of Ellington at Newport meant that there were lots more “Live at Newport” albums the following year; Verve alone put out a dozen from the 1957 festival. All are worth hearing, but this one and the two below are arguably the best of that batch. Leading a killer big band that includes Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, Pee Wee Moore, and Wynton Kelly (plus Mary Lou Williams taking over the piano bench for a couple of songs), Gillespie blasts through “Dizzy’s Blues,” “Manteca,” and Horace Silver’s “Doodlin’,” among others.

Listen to, buy or download At Newport on Amazon!

Count Basie, Count Basie at Newport (Verve, 1957)

Count Basie at Newport

Where the Duke had led, the Count was bound to follow. And in 1957, Basie made quite a splash at Newport, reuniting with a number of musicians from his ’30s/’40s heyday, including drummer Jo Jones, singer Jimmy Rushing, and—most exciting of all—the always-presidential Lester Young. Illinois Jacquet joins in the fun on an extended “One O’Clock Jump.” But it’s not all about the special guests. The rest of the band are fairly good too; perhaps you’ve heard of Roy Eldridge, Thad Jones, Frank Foster, and Frank Wess (to name just four other members).

Listen to, buy or download Count Basie at Newport on Amazon!

Ella Fitzgerald/Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald & Billie Holiday at Newport (Verve, 1958)

Ella Fitzgerald & Billie Holiday at Newport

Our final pick from the 1957 festival is another split disc. Ella’s set is a bit rough at first, but by the time she gets to “Air Mail Special,” her troubles are well behind her; the scat solo she unleashes here belongs on anyone’s short list of Newport moments. Side two is late-period Billie, of course, which some adore and others prefer to avoid, but her mood seems genuinely bright on “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” A sympathetic trio comprising Mal Waldron, Joe Benjamin, and (again) Jo Jones provide expert support.

Listen to, buy or download Ella Fitzgerald & Billie Holiday at Newport on Amazon!

Nina Simone, At Newport (Colpix, 1960)

Nina Simone at Newport

With guitarist Al Schackman, bassist Chris White, and drummer Bobby Hamilton behind her, Simone takes charge of the Newport crowd from the very first note of the opening “Trouble in Mind.” And it only gets deeper from there, as “Porgy” (not the Gershwins’ “I Loves You Porgy” but the Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields blues tune), “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” and “In the Evening by the Moonlight” all demonstrate.

Listen to, buy or download At Newport on Amazon!

McCoy Tyner, Live at Newport (Impulse!, 1964)

McCoy Tyner Live at Newport

For his first live album, Tyner teams up with trumpeter Clark Terry, alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano, bassist Bob Cranshaw, and drummer Mickey Roker. The leadoff track, “Newport Romp,” is suitably rambunctious, and the remainder effectively mixes standards (“My Funny Valentine,” “All of You”) with hard-bop touchstones (“Monk’s Blues,” “Woody ’N You”). It’s a textbook example of straight-ahead jazz at its best.

Listen to, buy or download Live at Newport on Amazon!

John Coltrane/Archie Shepp, New Thing at Newport (Impulse!, 1965)

John Coltrane/Archie Shepp - New Thing at Newport

The classic Coltrane quartet was about to split when they played the ’65 Newport Festival, and you can kinda tell; the leader is clearly aiming for something that his bandmates can’t quite see. And yet the music they make together still packs a major emotional punch. Shepp, backed by Bobby Hutcherson, Barre Phillips, and Joe Chambers, is more direct and vibrant on tracks like “Gingerbread, Gingerbread Boy” and “Call Me by My Rightful Name.” A lot of people didn’t like the “new thing” that Trane and Shepp were offering here. Some still don’t. But more than 50 years on, its breadth and depth are impossible to deny.

Listen to, buy or download New Thing at Newport on Amazon!

Miles Davis, Bitches Brew Live (Sony/Legacy, 2001)

Miles Davis - Bitches Brew Live

Okay, we played a little fast and loose with this one; it came out three decades after it was recorded, and a lot of it isn’t from Newport at all (some tracks come from the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival). But the Newport tunes that are here, from an unusual 1969 quartet set with Davis, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette—Wayne Shorter was supposed to be there too but got stuck in traffic—are electric in all senses of the word. In truth, though, it’s near impossible to pick only one Miles recording from Newport. If you opted to just get Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4, which features all of them in one package, we couldn’t argue.

Listen to, buy or download Bitches Brew Live on Amazon!

Dave Brubeck, The Last Set at Newport (Atlantic, 1972)

Dave Brubeck - The Last Set at Newport

We conclude as we began, with Brubeck. It’s 1971 and Desmond is gone, replaced by the ebullient Gerry Mulligan, while Jack Six and Alan Dawson hold down the rhythm. In light of what happened shortly after the performance—a riot broke out as protesters plowed through the fence around the grounds, bringing the festival to an early end and leading to its nine-year Manhattan exile—it’s tempting to hear this album as somehow valedictory. But the evidence for that isn’t really in the grooves; tunes like “Blues for Newport” and the aptly titled “Open the Gates” are nothing more (or less) than spirited, open celebrations of making music in the moment.

Listen to, buy or download The Last Set at Newport on Amazon!

Read Evan Haga’s JazzTimes field notes on the 2017 Newport Jazz Festival.